Stories From Across the Pond Winter 2017 Edition


Cultivating a Heart for Winter

I am apt to declare winter my favorite season--if not simply because it’s true, then almost certainly out of pity for a season that tallies a fair share more naysayers than any other. Winter’s negative reputation isn’t completely surprising. It is cold and snowy, and these conditions, regardless of their beauty, create more work and discomfort for those of us who are not necessarily looking for more challenges in life. In fact, if you were to make a list of things that the majority of people dislike most, I am sure that work and being cold would be near the top.

However, living in the north, we need winter to be cold and snowy. You could say it is the dharma of winter to be cold and snowy, the same way we expect summer to be warm and green. A good frigid winter with a solid, prolonged snow pack recharges our groundwater, ensuring that lakes and streams receive a steady trickle of cold clean water to last throughout the year. As for the temperature, winter’s chill helps control nuisance pest and insect populations to mitigate environmental degradation by invasive and non-native species. All this to say--aside from being beautiful, winter is also critical to maintaining the health and function of our Northwoods.

How disheartening it is then to hear so many people giving up on winter, disengaging from it and choosing instead to focus on the number of days until summer returns. One aim of our winter programming is to slow and even reverse the tide of rising anti-winter sentiment, to create ambassadors for winter and cultivate a heart for the season. Taken at face value, cultivating a heart for winter may seem like a trivial goal. After all, what difference does it make if students enjoy the snow and cold? But in a region where winter can linger for six months, an aversion to winter amounts to a dislike of being outside and engaging nature for half the year!

I asked the interns to contribute essays to this edition of SFATP that speak to developing a heart for winter and exploring the challenges associated with teaching natural history in the snow and cold. If we are going to create ambassadors for the environment, we also need to create ambassadors for winter.

Environmental Education Program Coordinator

Table of Contents

A Simple Winter - Shannon Marcy

Rediscovering the Joy of Winter - Claire Adams

Icy First Impressions - Jessi Kramer

Calendar of Events

Nature Nugget

Alumni Profile - Lauren Westerman

A Simple Winter

Shannon Marcy

Each day the interns begin teaching with some simple rules to help the day move smoothly and to protect the forest here at Au Sable. One of the rules is to not pick anything living; we use this to remind our students that they are to leave nature in its proper place. One student in particular seemed confused by this. He asked me why we told them not to pick anything living when everything in winter is dead. Of course the forest is full of life year-round, but it was an interesting reminder to me. In the eyes of a child with little experience in the Northwoods, especially during winter, the forest did look awfully cold and silent and, in his mind, dead.

After that day I changed how I explained that rule to emphasize that our forest, even though it doesn’t look like it at first glance, is alive and thriving during winter. Since I grew up in southern California, I usually had less experience in this type of winter than my students did. However, that lack of experience gave me better insight into the wonder and draw of winter environmental education.

In a winter forest, there is a unique sense of simplicity. The image of a forest in winter--constantly grey sky hanging over leafless trees rising above a fresh snow--draws one in to investigate, to look more closely. This is where we are able to captivate a child’s mind and encourage a desire to explore and find the forest life. The little things such as tree bark and winter buds become much more interesting when they are the only means to identify the different trees. And instead of coming across an animal itself, we have to learn tracks and browse marks to find evidence of animal activity. Winter is quiet, seemingly simple; learning how to investigate this natural setting provides a foundation in a child for greater curiosity in his/her surroundings. This ultimately may lend itself to a desire to study and understand not only creation but also our wonderful Creator. Much can come from allowing children to be outside learning what winter has to teach.


Rediscovering the Joy of Winter

Claire Adams

Over the past few years, I have unfortunately found myself falling into the common adult perspective of winter: that snow is a dreaded seasonal inconvenience. Don’t get me wrong, I think the snow is beautiful and I still “dream of a white Christmas” every December. But after January 1, the snow just seems to bring additional chores on top of our already busy lives: shoveling, clearing off the car, cold and wet shoes, more difficulty driving, and then more shoveling. What happened to the delight I experienced as a child when I woke in the morning to the sight of a thick, sparkling white blanket of snow covering the ground and trees? I couldn’t wait to go outside to make snow angels, build snow forts, and go sledding. Why don’t those activities come to my mind now when I see snow?

After learning so much about myself and teaching during the fall internship, I decided to return to Au Sable during the winter season to gain more experience teaching children in all types of weather. Knowing that we would be spending most of our time out in the snow and cold, I started preparing my wardrobe and mindset for a Northwoods winter. Snowshoeing, skiing, animal tracking, and walking on a frozen lake were all winter activities I used to do as a child. I always remembered them as being fun and exciting, allowing me to forget about the cold and notice the amazing wonders of the winter landscape. How had my ability to enjoy the cold and snow slipped away from me as an adult? And would I be able to genuinely enjoy the winter again in order to engage the creative minds of the children I would be teaching? It turns out the answer was yes.

On our first day of training for the internship, Paul took us out cross country skiing. As a child I had loved this activity, but I had not skied since I was eleven years old. As with anything that requires the least bit of athletic skill, I was apprehensive about skiing as an adult, worrying I would horrendously embarrass myself in front of my boss and fellow instructors. And, yes, the first day was pretty terrible. But after a few days of practicing, I stopped concentrating so much on not falling and focused instead on the silence of the winter woods, the beauty of the snow-covered trees, and the fascinatingly interwoven animal tracks. Previous to my arrival at Au Sable, I also had very little experience snowshoeing. Fortunately, snowshoeing was easier to pick up than skiing. The more often I walked along the trails I made, the more I noticed evidence of some characteristic residents of Au Sable’s forest, such as red fox, porcupine, and snowshoe hare.

As I hoped, my continuous amazement toward winter only increased as the children arrived for teaching days. The previous night’s snowfall would daily rejuvenate the landscape, making each day an adventure for the children and myself with every animal track, browse mark, and tree bud we would find. Many of the younger kids had never been on a snowshoe hike before their field trip. This opened up their world, if just a little, to a new way of experiencing nature in the winter. Not flying past on downhill skis or on noisy snowmobiles, they walked around slowly and quietly in order to take in their surroundings with all of their senses. The snowshoes made walking through the snow much less of a chore and more of an adventure. Though younger children get cold and tire easily in the snow, their ability to see so much evidence of wildlife around them in such a short amount of time ignites in them, perhaps for the first time, the joy of winter. And I am standing right alongside them, rediscovering that joy for myself.


Icy First Impressions

Jessi Kramer

“This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in winter.”

We were making our way back – a meandering, hilly, snow-drifting way back from North Country trail territory, toward Au Sable. Poles in hand, feet tucked away in ski boots, we paused. All around us, the knife-like wind had carved the snow into shapes that took on the nature of gentle Great Lakes waves – cresting, rolling, sparkling, subtle. Stretched out before us was a postcard panorama of pines boasting the perfect amount of snow. The boughs were not bent and burdened with a heavy layer; neither were they delicately dusted. The focus was on the snow and the trees as a whole, not one or the other, as they complemented and accented each other’s features.

The adult leaders in my group verbally expressed their delight. The students – their small legs and feet comically contrasting with their skis – didn’t say much as they caught up to the group and breathed deeply from the exercise. But the expressions on their faces were full of life, hinting at a special spark inside their spirits, something that had awakened during this adventure. Then they found their words. I heard a chorus of cheerful shouts, most to the effect of, “Go faster!” And on we went, toward the pines.

Following behind me were students and quite a few chaperones who wanted to experience some more advanced cross-country skiing trails during their overnight trip to Au Sable. They had already been rewarded with memorable moments on the trails. A coating of ice from a recent storm brilliantly encased everything in one part of the forest, and branches hung heavy, almost perfectly at face-level, along the ski trail. Initially a source of frustration for the ski group, the branches soon caused giggles. The students were unable to defend themselves from these branches while making their way down a hill, and the shrieks of laughter echoed through the woods.

We then encountered another hill – this one with a sharp curve at the end. One by one, students descended the hill, unaware of fallen classmates at the bottom. In a state of half-panic, half-delight they would try to slow their speeding skis in whatever desperate way they could, inevitably admitting defeat and bracing for impact before colliding with the others. Nearly all of them ended up in that snowy, laughing pile of kids and tangled skis.

When we arrived back at Au Sable, I assessed how the group was doing. The chaperones were beaming, clearly rejuvenated. The students could’ve kept skiing for hours. They seemed to have more energy than when they began. All were warm from exercise, cheeks red like a satisfying sunset, and many coats were unzipped though the weather was still frigid.

Spirits and bodies warmed – and no doubt the warming of one helped to warm the other, in some sort of beautiful cyclical mystery.

And all of this in the context of a biting winter day.

Rachel Carson, in her book A Sense of Wonder, says, “Nature reserves some of her choice rewards for days when her mood may appear to be somber….”

At first glance, and especially with one’s first few steps into it, many winter days may seem somber, or even harsh and uncomfortable.

I know that at the beginning our ski session – and maybe beyond that – my group felt chilled. They experienced that unpleasant sensation of their noses freezing, perhaps some painful tingling in fingers and toes, the burn of winter wind on their faces and the cold air in their lungs.

They got slapped in the face with icy branches. They fell in a heap along the slick trail, and were uncomfortably startled by new snow in their gloves, down their coats, lodged in their boots. But it was hilarious and exhilarating to them, and they created unexpectedly positive bonds with each other and the natural setting.

Just as the cutting wind created beauty in the snow that day, so too does winter give good gifts to those who refuse to be daunted by her chilly disposition. If you choose to get to know winter, your body and spirit may be unexpectedly warmed.


Calendar of Events

April 1 - Maple Syrup Day @ Hartwick Pines State Park. 10am—4pm. Learn about the history of maple syrup production, watch demonstrations, and get recipes; includes hands-on activities for children. Free.

April 22 - Earth Day Amphibians @ Grass River Natural Area. 11am—12:30pm. Check out vernal pools to identify and record frogs and salamanders for research. $5 per person.

April 26 - Planting Native Gardens @ Boardman River Nature Center. 5—7pm. Learn how to choose native plants for your landscape. Led by Vern Stephens of ‘Design by Nature’. Free but registration recommended.

April 29 - MiCorps Stream Monitoring Training @ Au Sable Institute. 9am—3pm. Learn how to monitor stream habitat and collect and identify macroinvertebrates. Free. Email to sign up.

May 9 - Wildflower & Bird Walk @ Grass River Natural Area. 10 am—12pm. Donations appreciated.

May 13 - MiCorps Collection Day @ Au Sable Institute. 9am—12:30pm. Meet at Au Sable and then collect macroinvertebrates at local rivers/streams. Free. Email to sign up.

May 20 - Annual Native Plant Sale @ Boardman River Nature Center. 8am—3pm. Update your home landscape with native plants. Over 50 species available.

Nature Nugget - Chaga

The chaga mushroom. It looks like a mass of charcoal, with rusty orange undertones, spilling from a wound in a tree. It seems somewhat insidious, tumor-like. This is not far from the truth, since it is parasitic, typically growing on birch trees and sucking up their nutrients; the host trees eventually die. It’s found in cold habitats, including our Northwoods, northern Europe and Russia. Chaga is only a part of the life cycle of a certain fungal species. A fruiting body of this species enters a tree via a wound and then grows under the bark, emerging as chaga. Chaga is a bit of a mystery to ecologists in the sense that its long-term ecological role is not fully understood.

Chaga has been used medicinally for hundreds of years and is often ground into a powder to make tea. Some consider it to be a “superfood”. It has been called the “Gift from God” or “Mushroom of Immortality” in different cultures since it contains a number of beneficial compounds, including an antioxidant with supposed anti-aging effects. For these reasons, there has been a problem with overharvesting.

Alumni Profile

Lauren Westerman, 14' Intern

I am a Resource Recovery Specialist for Kent County Department of Public Works. Wow! What a title. Sounds important, but who actually knows what that is? I didn’t even think it sounded like an interesting job and skimmed right over the application until an old friend told me that I really needed to check it out. Turns out, it was exactly the role I had been dreaming of.

I studied environmental biology as an undergrad at Covenant College and then went on to get a Master’s in Environmental Science from Taylor University. During my graduate program, I discovered that I not only loved learning about the environment, but I loved sharing that knowledge with others. I stumbled into an environmental education internship the first summer of my program and knew that was what I wanted to pursue from then on. A few internships and a couple jobs later, though, I was still stuck in the seasonal job cycle common to environmental scientists – not necessarily the lifestyle that I wanted. During my time at Au Sable, I was impressed with the focus on place-based learning and investing in your current location. I was at a point in life where I was ready to be in one place and invest in both that place and its people, but my job situation wasn’t quite there yet. With the decision to stay in one place made, I stuck it out for just over two years before I found my current job as a Resource Recovery Specialist, working as an environmental educator in the city and dealing with waste, recycling, and compost education.

As one of the lead educators for Kent County DPW, my mission is to promote recycling around the county. Our collective vision for Kent County is “20x20, 90x30” which means we are aiming to reduce landfill waste 20% by 2020 and 90% by 2030. Not only do I value reducing waste and using my own resources wisely, but now my personal values and passion are in line with my work. In order to achieve this new vision, education and outreach play a huge role. There is still a large portion of Kent County that does not recycle or does not know how to recycle.

Now that I’ve been in this role for just over a year, I realize even more why God placed me here. Working in resource recovery in a city is a very different type of environmental work than I’ve been involved with before. It definitely has overlap with my previous work, but working in a city is not the same as working in state parks, preserves, and camps. After living in the city of Grand Rapids for a year and a half before even starting my current job, I realized how important it is to take care of the earth that God has given us, even when placed in the center of a city.

It came back to the value of “place” that Au Sable instilled in me. Grand Rapids was my place and I was called to educate in this place. Also, I understood that one benefit of working in a city is the concentration of people that can be reached. There’s a whole new realm of environmental work to be done here. So many of earth’s resources are being used and consumed to build our cities, and then so much is wasted and thrown away to the landfills. Many people don’t even think about where their trash or recycling goes after it leaves their homes. They don’t realize why recycling is important, and therefore they don’t do it. That was part of the reason I was drawn to this field. I have the opportunity to educate people and share my enthusiasm for the natural world, but in a new way and from a different perspective than before. I am invested in my city and invested in the role to which God has called me as I seek to be a responsible steward of His creation and share those values with others.


Contributing Writers: Claire Adams, Shannon Marcy, Jessi Kramer, Paul Wiemerslage, Lauren Westerman

Contributing Photographers: Paul Wiemerslage, Lindsay Barden

Editors: Jessi Kramer, Lindsay Barden, Paul Wiemerslage, Mary Walker

Contact Us:

7526 Sunset Trail NE, Mancelona, MI 49659



Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.